ISLAMABAD – A suspected U.S. missile strike killed two alleged militants Thursday in northwestern Pakistan, intelligence officials said, while Pakistani soldiers battled the Taliban in an insurgent stronghold elsewhere along the Afghan border.
The drone-fired missiles struck Naurak village in North Waziristan tribal area overnight, the two officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media. A local resident's house and a car were damaged.
However, local tribesman Inayat Wazir told The Associated Press on the phone that the house was empty and that no one died.
It was not immediately possible to independently verify either claim due to the dangerous nature of the region.
The attack site is not far from South Waziristan, an Al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold where the Pakistani army launched a major offensive in mid-October.
Soldiers there fought street by street through the mountainous town of Ladha, the military said in a statement Wednesday. Over the previous day, the fighting left 10 militants dead in Ladha and 30 dead across the region, it said. Eight soldiers have been injured.
The army's offensive in South Waziristan is focused on the Pakistani Taliban, a network it blames for the majority of homicide bombings in its territory. The military is deliberately not pursuing other militant groups, including those in North Waziristan, which tend to be more focused on battling U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S., meanwhile, has continued to launch missiles against militant targets throughout Pakistan's tribal belt. The Americans rarely discuss the attacks, and the Pakistanis publicly condemn them as violations of their sovereignty. However, many analysts believe the two countries have a deal allowing the missile attacks.
The military sees Ladha as one of the three main Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan. It has already taken control of much of another key town, Sararogha, and is expected to launch an attack soon on Makeen, which the authorities have called the "nerve center" of the Pakistani Taliban.
"It's going fast," said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who declined to give a timeframe for when the fighting would end. "It depends — it's a lot of remote areas."
The Taliban, though, denies such claims. A Taliban spokesman told The Associated Press earlier this week that it had lost fewer than a dozen fighters and that its withdrawals had been made strategically to pull government fighters deeper into militant territory.
Figuring out the reality in South Waziristan is nearly impossible. The government only allows journalists into the battle zone on carefully orchestrated trips.
While the offensive is fairly popular in Pakistan, it also has plenty of vocal critics, many who believe the campaign is being waged to help the United States in its war in Afghanistan.
"The operation should be suspended immediately," Pakistani politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman said at an Islamabad press conference, arguing that many of the victims have been civilians. "This operation is not eliminating militancy. Instead, it is killing innocent people."
Rehman is the chief of Jamiat Ulema Islam, a Muslim party that is deeply anti-American — but is still part of Pakistan's U.S.-allied ruling coalition.
The U.N. says some 155,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan since the offensive began, but it is not known how many have been killed or hurt.
The offensive, though, has drawn retaliatory militant attacks across Pakistan.
Earlier Wednesday, a group of militants ambushed a van as it traveled near Khar, the main town in the Bajur tribal region, killing two female teachers and wounding two other passengers.
Approximately 10 militants hid on both sides of a rural road and sprayed the van with automatic weapons fire as it went past, said local official Adalat Khan. The attackers then fled on motorcycles.
Pakistan's Taliban fighters are deeply opposed to modern education, particularly for girls, and have blown up schools and attacked teachers across the country.
"This is an alarming sign," said Fazal Rabi, a senior official with Bajur's tribal police force. Despite a spate of recent attacks, the government insists Bajur has been free of militants since it forced them out in an offensive earlier this year.